Ecclesiastes 3:11, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”
If we observe anything from our culture today, it’s that the idea of relativism and its step-sister, subjectivity are king. We see this on the news, in magazines, and the media, and all around us every day as people deny the existence of universal, objective truth, instead preferring to affirm, “what is true for me may not be true for you, and what is true for you may not be true for me.” Even so, fairly recently the Oxford dictionary word of the year was “post-truth” meaning that we have now moved beyond in our culture the idea of objective truth which is no surprise as we see the collapse of morality and ethics in our culture at a rapid rate. The only absolute truth that most people will affirm in our society is that their truth is the only one. In other words, there is no such thing as absolute truth in our culture.
In addition to the above observations, we can see this idea being played out in aesthetics also and in the Church. Christians who would otherwise affirm absolute truth seem just as likely as their non-Christian neighbors to believe that genuine beauty is solely in the eyes of the beholder. For example, one consequence of this is how one can affirm there is any genuinely objective way to define a work of art as more beautiful than another in a post-truth culture if there is no objective standard by which to judge the art or anything else? Answer: It’s impossible to judge a piece of art or anything else or to have absolute morals and ethics without having objective truth as the standard.
The highly subjective response to beauty differs no doubt from person to person, and that isn’t bad. After all, we all after our tastes, influences, and so on. Musical preferences and artistic appreciation we know vary from person to person. We must recognize that the subject is deeply involved in any response to music, painting, sculpture, or any work of art. To acknowledge the role of the subject is not to embrace aesthetic subjectivism. Even those who profess relativism live according to specific subjective standards. After all, everyone as R.C. Sproul once said is a theologian which is why even the atheist, for example, has theology. No one who wants to live disregards the universal truth of gravity when standing near the edge of a cliff. Although objective standards are harder for people to recognize in the realm of aesthetics, people still have some standard in mind when they evaluate the arts. Otherwise, they might as well pay as much for a chimpanzee’s finger-painting as they do for a portrait if they can afford it by Da Vinci.
The Lord is the Standard of All Beauty
To understand what is going all around us is necessary but not as important as what the Scriptures have to say about the subject. After all, the Lord God is the standard of beauty and the ultimate stand of truth. Works of art that somehow reflect His nature are more beautiful than works that do not. Our text today in Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “He has made everything beautiful in its time.”
From a church history perspective, Christian thinkers have evaluated art according to four criteria: proportion, harmony, simplicity, and complexity. The criteria of God and the world as He originally made it are a complex creation and a reflection of proportion and harmony. While the subject is always deeply moving in any encounter with the arts, we must understand that there is one supreme standard of beauty, and that is the Lord Himself. The Bible speaks of “the beauty of the Lord” (Psalm 27:4). We dare not forget that the most beautiful works of art are but pale reflections of the loveliness of God. In eternity to come, Christians will have their desire for beauty fully satisfied as we gaze on the beautiful Creator (1 Corinthians 13:12; 1 John 3:1-3).
You and I live in a time when subjectivity reigns supreme. In matters of ultimate reality, it is common to hear people affirm the existence of many contradictory truths. Universal statements of an ethical nature are opposed fervently in a postmodern society where the only acceptable truth is that there is no absolute truth.
We again return to the realm of aesthetics. Even Christians who forcefully contend against absolute relativism typically harbor the idea that beauty is purely in the eyes of the beholder. Some might even say that we have no reason to believe one work of art is more beautiful than another.
It is impossible to deny the subjective response to beauty. Earlier I mentioned musical preferences vary from person to person. The subject is always deeply involved for people when it comes to the arts. We are mistaken to think there can be no absolute standards for aesthetics. All men generally live according to some objective rules in other areas of their lives. Modern science is based on the premise of a universe governed by certain laws. If we disregard, for example, the law of gravity when walking near the edge of a cliff, we will likely die or be severely injured. The same holds true for beauty, or else we would consider a monkey’s painting as beautiful as a Monet. As we have seen throughout this article already if God is the ultimate standard of beauty, art that conforms to His nature is not only the best; it is also the loveliest. In Ecclesiastes 3:11, we see Solomon helping us understand what the Lord determines as beautiful.
Rightly Judging Aesthetics
Theologians like Jonathan Edwards and Thomas Aquinas have made aesthetic judgments with four criteria. The first is proportion seen in the difference between Rembrandt’s paintings and the drawing of stick figures, for example. The second is harmony, illustrated in symphony’s opposition to cacophony. The third is simplicity, which affirms something need not be complex that is beautiful. The fourth is complexity. An example of this is an orchestral performance is more lovely than a whistle’s blowing. Complexity need not contradict simplicity; even a simple Gregorian chant has many tonal variations.
These four standards of beauty all reflect the revealed character of God. The Lord is simply—He is indivisible; each of His attributes reflects the other. God is complex, having many facets to His character. His creation exhibits proportionality: the abilities of man and animals differ relative to each other and to the Lord. God exists as harmony; the three distinct Trinitarian persons are working perfectly together. All of this should cause us to consider how the standards of beauty align with God’s truth in His Word.
Joy in the Lord Who Orders All Things, Including Eternity on the Hearts of His People
In Ecclesiastes 3:11 we see that God has set eternity in our hearts what Fredricks calls “an etching of the eternal on our soul”[i] which does not mean we understand how God’s ordering of everything works. Instead, we are like Augustine, who said he understood the concept of time up to the point where someone asked him to explain it.[ii] See, the Lord has made people in His image as inquisitive about eternity. This is what Solomon wants us to understand when he says, “he has put eternity into man’s heart.” But just because someone has given us a key to unlock the door, does not mean they have shown us where on earth the door is.
The right response to the challenges of life is not frustration, fret, worry, or anxiety, but joy-filled faith and confidence in our sovereign God. And the key to doing that is to enjoy what the Lord God has given as we will discover in Ecclesiastes 3:12-15. To do this well, we need to humbly concede that the Lord alone is great and boldly bow before the “Potentate of time.”[iii] Look above your circumstances to the Lord and see something of God’s beautiful design and work of grace in your life, dear Christian.
You and I struggle to acknowledge how God fits everything, and this is understandable. After all even in the fallen world’s ugliness, into his sovereignly fitting plan or to borrow from Romans 8:28 that, “all things work together for our good” as well as God’s good—the Incarnation puts an exclamation point over any and all quotation marks. We can trust in the Lord’s sovereign timing because in “the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4), Jesus came to fulfill God’s perfectly timed plan of salvation (John 7:30; 13:1). Jesus, who certainly has time under control (Rev. 22:13; cf. 1:8; 21:6; Heb. 13:8), began his earthly ministry by announcing, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). Even the hour of his death was timed by God’s watch: “Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father. . .” (John 13:1; cf. Mark 8:31).11 This is why, years after Jesus’ earthly life, Paul wrote: “at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6).
Like the apostles before Jesus’ ascension, we want to know the fullness of God’s plan. But Ecclesiastes gives the same answer Jesus gave his apostles on that occasion, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority (look up this verse)” (Acts 1:7). “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children to forever. . .” (Deut. 29:29). So, let us rejoice in the revelation we have been given. Let us be wise enough to recognize that our times are in God’s hands (Ps. 31:15). Let us embrace the beauty of God’s comprehensive control of everything.
Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father. . .” (John 13:1; cf. Mark 8:31).11 This is why, years after Jesus’ earthly life, Paul wrote: “at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6).
Like the apostles before Jesus’ ascension, we want to know the fullness of God’s plan. But Ecclesiastes gives the same answer Jesus gave his apostles on that occasion, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children to forever. . .” (Deut. 29:29). So, let us rejoice in the revelation we have been given. Let us be wise enough to recognize that our times are in God’s hands (Ps. 31:15). Let us embrace the beauty of God’s comprehensive control of everything.
[i] Fredericks, “Ecclesiastes,” 124.
[ii] Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin, 1961), 264.
[iii] The phrase comes from Matthew Bridge’s hymn, “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” Twice Fredericks calls verse 11 “the greatest statement of divine providence in the whole Scripture” (“Ecclesiastes,” 117, 124).